Saturday, December 7, 2013

On Gravity: Transhumanism, Rebirth, & Louis C.K.

NOTE!
There's some "spoilers" here. So if you haven't seen Gravity and you absolutely do not want to know if they make it or not, don't read. 

It's all empowering and humbling at once. Through Alfonso Cuarón's lens we see the human body both as a giant structure eclipsing planets and stars, and as a delicate speck lost in the infinite dark of space. Like Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain(2006), Gravity has a similar reverence for human life and everything that entails - happiness, pain, loss, banality, fear, love, etc. In Aronofsky’s underappreciated masterpiece, he is all inclusive when it comes to faiths and ideologies, giving equal footing to science and religion, as he shows man’s struggle with accepting his ultimate fate: death. Cuarón takes this same approach in Gravity, though instead of uniting characters through death, he unites them through the vitality of their humanity. The characters of Matt Kowalski(George Clooney) and Dr. Ryan Stone(Sandra Bullock) are American, but they rely on both the technology of the Russians and Chinese to survive. Dr. Stone only barely struggles to operate the different control panels, despite linguistic barriers the guts are all essentially the same. This story could have just as easily been about a person of any nationality, and the struggles and successes would have had synonymous meaning. When it comes to human bodies the guts are also all the same, as is the will to survive and stand victorious.

Gravity poses as a creation myth that unites science and religion. However this myth is not about the birth of the original man, but of a new postmodern man. Stone and Kowalski fly in the heavens, angels who make sure our satellites give us internet and GPS coordinates and images of possible locations for suspected terrorists. In order for Dr. Stone to return to earth, she must go through a process of rebirth, a transformation in which she let's go of her suffering - specifically the mourning of her daughter, who tragically passed while playing tag. Stone’s journey of reincarnation through release of suffering and her own religious beliefs of an afterlife and heaven combine both western and eastern religions. Under the jovial eyes of a smiling Buddha, she makes her fiery return to earth and is symbolically reborn in the water, mimicking the steps of evolution by swimming, crawling and then triumphantly walking on the land. Stone’s ascension to Earth is where she transcends her character of the grieving mother and scared doctor, and now becomes a symbol - an icon of humanity. The camera frames her in these first steps, perhaps the first steps she’s made the entire film, as a titan - made powerful by the knowledge of her own mortality and her spiritual strength that allowed her to persist against all odds..

However, this messy and at times violent rebirth, is not a pure product of her will power alone - Stone is aided in her journey by the technology around her. Machines give her the power to breath in space and eventually reenter the planet's atmosphere, but all of these contraptions seem more delicate than the human bodies they’re meant to protect. While their importance is noted, they ultimately seem trivial compared to the power of the human spirit. Metal structures are shredded throughout the film and their debris will eventually burn up in the mesosphere, while Stone and Kowalski pingpong off of walls and obstacles mostly unscathed. There are deaths of course, to remind us that human beings are still more than capable of dying. Gravity tries to balance its reverence for the body by both acknowledging the power of humanity and its fragility. We have the ingenuity to explore the cosmos but can just as easily die in ways both spectacular (space debris to the face) and banal (falling down while playing tag).

On first look, Gravity’s philosophy looks like an alternative to transhumanism, which deals with the merging of human biology with technology to enhance our limited capabilities. Ray Kurzweil, who wrote a fascinating book called How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed, explains that, with some key scientific breakthroughs, we could use our brain to access the cloud, a universal cache of knowledge and human experience, and download the information we need as we need it by only thinking about it. Google Glass, a smartphone in the form of eye-wear, feels like another step towards this integration of cloud data and our mind. The dream is that these enhancements could push the boundaries of human capabilities, limited only by imagination. However, this possible amalgamation of human and technology seems unnecessary, when the majority of us only use the gadgets we have now for the mundane task of searching IMDB for that actor we saw in that thing that one time.

This use of valuable technology for triviality is brought up when the satellites are being destroyed, with Kowalsky quipping that a portion of America “just lost their Facebook.” The social network site is treated here with irreverence, but its importance in people’s day to day lives is also acknowledged. One wonders how many people would be more worried about Facebook being restored than the handful of people floating in space making sure their lives are comfortable. These platforms of communication are indeed helpful, one can look at the social network’s role in the Arab Spring as a reference, yet one can’t say that Twitter or Facebook are truly hitting their full potential on a consistent basis. Our technology, meant to push the limits of human power, instead serve as a distraction from our own problems. When asked what she does to unwind back home, Dr. Stone tells Kowalsky that she drives and listens to the radio - a ritual of escapism to avoid the pain of losing her child. For her, like many people in the world, our gadgets are used to avoid the difficulties of reality - to cloud our mind and keep us from necessary introspection. If this is what we use technology for now, how excited should we be about integrating it into our biology? Comedian Louis C.K. actually did a bit on Conan O’Brien’s talk show about how we use technology to avoid our deeper feelings, thus keeping us from truly experiencing sorrow and potentially real joy. His story of sitting in a car weeping, and eventually being filled with bliss actually mirrors Dr. Stone’s growth in Gravity. You can watch it here:



Cuarón doesn’t merely want to do away with our technology and gadgets, instead he values the it as a tool for survival: the suits provide safety from space, the stations provide air, the radios provide communication and at one point comfort. But when Stone finally crashes back in the water surrounded by lush green environment, she sheds her mechanical placenta to show us that technology is ultimately disposable. Rather than pushing for the transhumanist fusion of man and machine, Cuarón’s Gravity wants the body to stand alone - an existential marvel to be celebrated for its design, both perfect and imperfect. Whether this body was created by divine hand or evolution, with the aid of technology or not, is irrelevant. All that matters is that it exists and that it endures.